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Fly Like a Jailbird

Fly Like a Jailbird

The Rebbe and the prisoner


Jonathan Roth was a man in despair. For as long as he could remember, things hadn’t worked out for him. For starters, he was born into poverty, and not long after his twelfth birthday, his father succumbed to illness. After that, he fell in with the wrong crowd in an attempt to ease the financial burden at home.

But then came the big blow. He was caught selling drugs, and was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Life behind bars was difficult, to say the least. He couldn’t bear not being able to make life’s simple choices. Worst of all, he was weighed down by feelings of blame and resentment towards himself over his errors. Not a day went by without him mentally replaying his previous mistakes. He was nearing his wits’ end, when he was unexpectedly given a new lease on life.

One weekend, an organization that services the needs of Jewish inmates organized an extended Torah study retreat in Crown Heights for Jews in federal prisons. The program included participation in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s farbrengen (public gathering) on a Shabbat afternoon.

Something about the Rebbe’s manner intrigued him, and he listened carefully to the talk being given on the Torah portion of the week.

“There is something unfair about the punishment meted out to the supporters of the biblical spies sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan,” the Rebbe was saying.

“Granted, they had sinned by expressing disinterest in ascending to Canaan, and consequently were destined to die without setting foot there. But why weren’t they brought to the border of the desert to live out the rest of their lives in one location? Why were they made to travel for forty years, and live a taxing life of transience and upheaval?”

The Rebbe continued by quoting the Midrash that teaches that wherever the Israelites traveled, they converted the physical ground upon which they trod. Greenery and vegetation replaced the barren and arid Sinai terrain. Wherever they went, they made inroads of civilization in an otherwise uninhabitable wilderness.

“So, theirs was a trek of positive transformation, not just meaningless and unnecessary travel from one place to the next. Hence their extended journey wasn’t only a punishment, but was also a privilege.”

The Rebbe’s next words grabbed him.

“How is this ancient story relevant today? A person can find himself stuck in a virtual desert, a place on the map or in his psyche that doesn’t seem civilized, where he feels unable to be true to himself or to express himself freely. Why is he there—just because of bad luck or foolish errors?

“Take, for example, the situation of a prisoner. Why is he behind bars? It can’t be just because he committed a crime. After all, many free people commit the same crime! They weren’t caught, you say? So why was he caught? Not only because he is a shlemazel . . .

“You see, if there is one place on earth that is most unG‑dly, it is prison. In prison a person is stripped of that which makes him uniquely human: his freedom. For this reason, there is no punishment of jail in Jewish law.

“But there are certain souls which, becuse of their potency, were handpicked by Providence to enter the spiritual wilderness that is incarceration, and transform it through meaning and spiritual creativity. Few people can achieve the inner freedom necessary to survive, and even thrive, in a prison environment.

“And it is these elevated souls that end up ‘doing time.’

“Now, it’s true that these people have committed crimes, and must be held accountable for their actions. But like the ancient spies, their mistakes only superficially account for their predicament. Besides, we have the right to wonder why certain people and not others are born into dire circumstances, or with immoral tendencies which lead them down destructive paths.

“But the idea here is that, ironically, immoral impulses allude to unique spiritual powers. In the words of the Talmud: ‘The greater one is, the stronger is his evil inclination.’ Another relevant Talmudic statement: ‘G‑d doesn’t give his creations challenges they cannot overcome.’

“As it turns out, then, the people in jail are not the dregs of society, but have the potential to be its most far-reaching members!”

Needless to say, Jonathan’s life turned around. For the first time in his life, rather than seeing himself as a victim, he began to see himself as someone who possessed a unique destiny few are chosen for. A fate which others naturally curse, he came to view as a source of blessing.

What’s in it for me?

In the counterintuitive worldview of Judaism, moral and religious crises are an indicator not of weakness, but of strength.

And the script of life and history is a coauthorship between the divine and man, between the laser-precision of Providence and the folly of human mistakes.

We are all on a journey through our personal deserts, each of us equipped with the tailor-made gear—circumstances, impulses, and talents—that enables us to make flowers out of sand, establish life where death once reigned, and bring meaning to the random and mundane.

Based on Likkutei Sichot, vol. 13, pp. 16–19, and a talk of the Rebbe in 5745.1

See Hitvaaduyot 5745, vol. 4, p. 2274.
I’d like to thank Rabbi Michoel Seligson for his valuable assistance with the research for this article.
Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children.
Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
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Anonymous New Orleans, A via June 8, 2015

This is so powerful and inspiring. I passed it on to a friend who is "jailed" in a hospital for treatment of mental illness . Hopefully it will ease the experience Reply

David Levant Emerson, N.J. June 13, 2012

Talmud thought One that has the capacity to do great things can do them,but an almost equally powerful inclination always exists,trying to undo the positive thoughts that one has.Overcoming the evil inclination (impulses)is not easy,but it is not hard either.Don't listen to them,have patience,and they will eventually weaken and go away. Reply

Anonymous November 28, 2011

Eye Opener!! Your piece is astounding! After several hours of reading various thoughts, and almost closing for the night, I am now wide-eyed with wonderment. I only hope to "make flowers out of sand" with the remaining time left. Thank you for clarity!! Reply

motti beer sheva, israel July 25, 2011

Mendel Kalmanson's article and the first six
comments to date may each have some validity. What troubles me is the absence
of any mention of anyone else.Certainly, there is no information about this man's actions and how they have perhaps negatively affected others. It seems reasonable that in certain situations, a person must be jailed
to protect others from his actions.
Because the narrative is so very brief,
not enough is written on which to base
any conclusion about this man's
alleged wrongdoings. Reply

Anonymous Israel June 19, 2011

as a victim of abuse this article really spoke to me, since an abusive situation is similar in various ways to being in jail; your freedom is restricted and your very image of self is challenged. I've often wondered, "why me?"

thanks you for providing an uplifting answer.


ruth housman marshfield, ma June 17, 2011

the Desert I LOVE this in so many ways. I know a man in prison and this is unjust. Perhaps Leonard Peltier's term is for his elevation or for us all because in this case it seems even the angels so far have not brought his release. I say there must be a time when enough succumbs to what is right and even IF as I know there is no blind chance but only Providence then may the Master Scriptwriter speed his release from uncommon unjust bondage to teach us all how to plead eloquently for justice denied. Reply

Katie boston, usa June 15, 2011

Jonathan Roth So finish the story what happened to Jonathan Roth? Reply

john smith fort lauderdale, fl June 15, 2011

"Needless to say, Jonathan’s life turned around. For the first time in his life, rather than seeing himself as a victim, he began to see himself as someone who possessed a unique destiny few are chosen for. A fate which others naturally curse, he came to view as a source of blessing."

if this were true...Moses himself would have stayed in Egypt and considered it a blessing of knowing the one true G-d.

lets disregard the fact that this man who was jailed a common criminal. as it was stated, there is no punishment of jail in jewish law.

to compare Moses to the man in the story is not really a good comparison....or is it? do we not ALL come from one source? does truth not come from one only? i do understand the anology of a man never knowing his source and that you cannot jail the soul. that his soul had never had the sense of purpose but that is not true..he always had a sense but was not realized until locked in contemplation.

i love the stories here and i love your work Reply

Sarah Z Israel June 15, 2011

fantastic great piece - yashar koach Reply

David Austreng Yacolt, WA June 15, 2011

Freedom Life is short. It seems most people are good and we assume those we put in cages, like animals, are bad. I think there is likely an equal percentage in and out of cages.

One day will come, when humans can treat other humans as more than animals. One day, people will choose goodness over badness because the world will be a G-dly place.

The weapons of war will be turned into devices that feed the world... Imagine everyone with food, shelter, family. I wonder if we would need prisons...? Reply

Anonymous Cache Bay, ntario, Canada June 14, 2011

Incarceration Although not of the Jewish persuasion yet., I see the wisdom in the teachings of both rebbe and theological literature of this faith.
Many a lost soul could benefit studying on whatever level they are capable of.
I am just a novice at age 61 and probably won;t be able to reach much higher than that state due to the advancement of age but I will try to be a better human and learn as much as I can while here.


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